​Taking Office as EPA Acting Administrator, Wheeler Gets Realer

July 25, 2018
Andrew Wheeler, EPA’s new acting administrator following the July 5 resignation of scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt, at a televised “town meeting” for EPA employees on July 11. The event was attended by many reporters, including some who had been selectively excluded from events during the Pruitt era. Video: C-SPAN

TipSheet: Taking Office as EPA Acting Administrator, Wheeler Gets Realer

Now that Andrew Wheeler has started settling into office at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many are asking what his new regime means for EPA’s future.

On the one hand, he may be easier on journalists than departed Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose tenure was marked by exclusion and secrecy. On the other hand, he is expected to continue to drive the Trump agenda that many view as bad news for health and environment.

Reporting on Wheeler had already started months ago, while he was being considered for confirmation by the Senate as EPA’s deputy administrator — Pruitt’s second in command. After Pruitt’s resignation earlier in July, Wheeler was appointed acting administrator, a position he could serve in almost indefinitely without another Senate confirmation. GOP senators say they are comfortable with that.

Now the reporting since Wheeler took over has changed tone — and some of it is favorable.

Lobbying was no obstacle for ex-Senate staffer’s confirmation

Prior to Wheeler’s confirmation by the Senate as deputy on April 12, 2018, much of the coverage focused on his career as a coal lobbyist. You might think this would have hurt his chances (may require subscription), but you’d be wrong.

Wheeler’s approval in the Senate Environment Committee went by a straight party-line 11-10 vote. He was well-known to the committee, having worked there as a senior Senate staffer from 1995 to 2009, most of it for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). His 53-45 confirmation from the Senate as a whole included approval from three red-state Democrats, one being Joe Manchin from coal-centric West Virginia.

After he left the Senate Environment Committee in 2009, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist. And at the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, he represented Murray Energy, a coal company owned by Trump supporter Robert E. Murray.

Murray was a vocal opponent of former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and a major contributor to Trump. Murray gave the Trump administration an “action plan” which has served partially as a to-do list for the Trump EPA and energy agencies.

Wheeler was still representing Murray during the early months of the Trump administration. During that time, but before he was nominated, he even hosted fundraisers for GOP members of the Senate Environment Committee.

Rebranding at EPA doesn’t translate to new policy

Scandals surrounding Pruitt were multiplying by the time of Wheeler’s confirmation in April, so when Pruitt finally resigned July 5, Wheeler’s appointment as acting administrator was a mere formality.

Now, the new chief has definitely sought to rebrand the administrator’s office.

On July 11, for instance, Wheeler held a televised “town meeting” in which he presented himself to EPA employees … and the world. He reached out to employees, saying he was ready to listen (may require subscription) to them, not something Pruitt appears to have done much of. (Although Rebecca Leber, writing for Mother Jones, noted that Pruitt had used the same line about “listening” in his own inaugural address).


While tone has seemingly changed at EPA,

what appears unchanged is policy.

Wheeler made clear that he would pursue

the same policy priorities that Pruitt had.


One thing that was certainly different about Wheeler’s “town hall” was the presence of journalist Eric Lipton (may require subscription) (along with droves of other reporters). The New York Times investigative ace had uncovered many EPA scandals during the Pruitt era, and was one of the many reporters who had been selectively excluded and personally attacked by previous EPA press honchos.

Lipton acknowledged, in his subsequent article, that Wheeler had made changes in press operations — ending the selective exclusion and updating his calendars promptly. And for many other media — such as the AP’s Ellen Knickmeyer, whom guards had weeks before physically shoved out of the EPA building — the headline was a new tone and style (may require subscription) of openness. The apparent shift has also been noted in articles by Bloomberg and Greenwire (subscription required).

That story has held up in subsequent weeks. Pruitt had devolved into giving interviews largely to Fox and Breitbart in his last months. But Wheeler gave major interviews to serious mainstream media in his first days: Washington Post (may require subscription), Greenwire, Wall Street Journal (subscription required) and Bloomberg.

So changes in EPA press office behavior seem to be one real change under Wheeler. While the vacancies left by departing Pruitt spokespersons have yet to be officially filled, John Konkus seems to have emerged for now as the de facto top spokesman under Wheeler.

But while tone has seemingly changed at EPA, what appears unchanged is policy. At his town meeting, for instance, Wheeler made clear that he would pursue the same policy priorities that Pruitt had. Case in point: He did not mention climate at all.  

Wheeler has remained unapologetic about his coal lobbying. So perhaps it was no surprise that one of his first major moves as acting administrator was to finalize a rule easing EPA restrictions on the disposal of toxic coal ash — a change that had been in the pipeline under Pruitt.

Another example is Wheeler’s reported intention to go ahead with loosening Obama-era auto emissions standards.

But one item to watch: While Wheeler’s advent has to some extent reset the counter on EPA scandals (some Pruitt scandals persist), we may yet see new scandals emerge under Wheeler. Wheeler has promised to recuse himself from decisions affecting his old lobbying clients — but doing that may be problematic (may require subscription). And some of the scandals may span the change in administrators, such as EPA’s apparent policy of slowing down responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 28. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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